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March 15, 2010
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March 15, 2010

The Remarkable Story Of Tom Smallwood


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When he won the PBA World Championship, his fairy godmother, watching at home, screamed so loudly that it scared the Doyles' dog, which wouldn't come near her for an hour. Smallwood's fairy godfather was glued to a TV at State Lanes, where league play screeched to a halt as bowlers gathered to watch one of their own. When Smallwood struck out in the 10th to win 244--228, the roar was so loud that Steve Doyle was surprised it didn't carry to Kansas.

So Smallwood's new life began in earnest. Radio interviews. Inside Edition. ESPN. "Surreal," Jen says. "I can't believe I'm married to a professional athlete." In early January her husband dumped 25 balls in the backseat and drove 35 hours nonstop to Las Vegas with fellow pro Brian Waliczek, stayed a night, then drove another nine hours to suburban San Francisco for a tournament. He then detoured to Los Angeles for a meeting about book and movie possibilities before returning to Las Vegas in a harrowing rainstorm for the PBA Tournament of Champions on Jan. 19--24. Smallwood was driving his 2008 Chevy Impala, but sometimes it seemed he made it to Vegas by falling down a rabbit hole.

ON HIS FIRST BALL in his first game at the Tournament of Champions, Smallwood leaves the 2-8-10 split. He does not believe in omens. He believes in "operator error."

Smallwood's story is no more peculiar than his bowling style. He begins his approach from the extreme right of the lane, then drifts, almost crablike, to the left as he nears the foul line. Instead of swinging the bowling ball in a pendulum, he cradles it as if he were carrying a football in the open field. He veers back to the middle and finally releases the ball from the right side of the lane, not far from where he began his five-step journey.

His power is generated by shoulder torque, not by the lever of a backswing. He throws essentially with the index and middle fingers of his right hand; only the tip of his thumb enters the hole.

Smallwood throws the ball at below-average speed for a PBA bowler. When a pin remains standing that he figures should have fallen, he regards it dolefully, as a parent might a disobedient child. He does not get angry after a poor game—that 2-8-10 leave balloons into a messy 153—well, at least not for more than a minute. He is, after all, bowling for a living.

"If you had given me a piece of paper on December 23, 2008, and asked me to write a story of myself, what I would have wanted to get done in the next year, I would never have written it this good," Smallwood says. "Tour Trials. Maybe make a TV show. Stay in the top 15 or 20 on the pro tour. Not this."

He has gone from American idle to American idyll, but not everything in a suddenly blessed life is perfect. Dennie and Tom's mother, Sharon, have driven 2,137 miles—Dennie is a man who tabulates those things—to see him in the Tournament of Champions, and Jen has flown in for the weekend. But Tom seems to be bowling uphill after that inauspicious start. He closes to 28th place, four off the cut line, with four preliminary games remaining, but he begins the next game with an open frame and then chops the 6-pin and blows a makeable 6--10 spare in the second. He is done right there. Before the last qualifying game he walks by Randy Rieck, a friend from home, and smiles as he says, "The forecast for tonight is spotty showers with a 100 percent chance of getting drunk."

In fairy tales people do live happily ever after, at least each in his own way.


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